COMMENTARY | Should he stay or should he go?
Welker received the franchise tag last season - a guaranteed one-year deal worth $9.515 million -- but is scheduled to become a free agent next month. It remains to be seen if the Patriots are willing to pay Welker what it will take to keep him in Foxborough.
That cost would be another franchise tag ($11.4 million for 2013) or an offer similar to the two-year, $16 million deal he turned down in 2011. Teams have until March 4 to use the franchise tag.
The case for keeping Welker is a strong one. He's productive AND durable. That's something that can't be said about two other Patriots' receivers: tight end Rob Gronkowski and slot receiver Julian Edelman.
Welker has made 672 catches during his six seasons in New England, and has led the league in receptions three times during that span. Over the last three seasons Welker ranks first among NFL players in receptions (326), third in receiving yards (3,771) and first in yards after catch (1,828). He finished second in receptions (118) and eighth in receiving yards (1,354) last season.
Welker has been healthy enough to play in all but three games during his time with the Patriots. By comparison, Edelman, a possible replacement should Welker leave, has missed 16 games to injury during his years with the Patriots, including 10 games in the last two seasons. Edelman ended last season on injured reserve with a broken foot.
Worth mentioning is the fact that Edelman, Deion Branch and Dante Stallworth are also eligible for free agency, and New England would owe Brandon Lloyd a $3 million bonus if he chooses to stick around, so the Patriots could soon find themselves very thin at the receiver position.
Welker is clearly Tom Brady's favorite target, so why mess with a good thing?
The case against keeping Welker goes something like this: He's approaching his 32nd birthday, he's a product of the Patriots' offensive system and his best days are behind him. Those on that side of the fence believe the Patriots can get similar production from a less-expensive receiver, and can use the money they save to strengthen another position.
In addition, the Patriots have shown a preference for letting a player go a year too early rather than a year too late (see Richard Seymour).
If Welker does leave, the Patriots could replace him from within (possibly with Edelman, or they could experiment by moving tight end Aaron Hernandez to slot receiver), through free agency or the draft. It should be noted that the Patriots don't have the best track record when it comes to selecting wide receivers in the draft. Chad Jackson and Bethel Johnson were both second-round selections. Branch, David Givens, P.K. Sam, Brandon Tate, Edelman, Taylor Price and Jeremy Ebert are the other wide receivers Patriots coach/GM Bill Belichick has selected since coming to New England in 2000.
Bringing in a free agent could be dicey as well, since Joey Galloway and Chad Ochocinco are among the veteran NFL receivers who had trouble getting comfortable in the Patriots' offense.
The bottom line regarding Welker is this: In today's NFL few things are more valuable than a proven commodity, and Welker has proven to that he's worth the money.
Roger Brown is a staff writer for the New Hampshire Union Leader, and has been covering high school, college and pro football throughout New England since 1992.